The French Connection

Watching Jonathan Nossiter’s film Mondovino gives the viewer the impression that the world of French wine is being overrun with Americans and modern American wine influences. Maybe that’s true, but if so it is only half the story. Herewith three stories of French wine and wine-makers in America inspired by recent conversations with former students (thanks to Jeremy, Devin and Patrick for your help).

Story 1: Pinot Noir is a hot wine in the United States — the Sideways phenomenon continues for now. The best-selling Pinot Noir in American is called Redwood Creek. Have you seen it? Redwood Creek is a popularly priced Gallo brand; the label says that the wines are “inspired by the Frei Bros. 100 Year Old California Winemaking Tradition.”

“Inspired” is a good word to use here because, although the brand reflects California tradition, the wine itself is from France. The label says “Product of France” and “Vin de Pays D’Oc.” So it doesn’t come from California’s Central Valley, as you might expect from a Gallo product, but France’s equivalent, the vast vineyards of Languedoc.

I expect that many American supermarket shoppers who would never have had the confidence try to pronounce “vin de pays d’oc” much less spend money on some of its wines will be happily opening bottles of Redwood Creek Pinot Noir this Thanksgiving. Moral of the story: American consumers will buy French wine if it is presented in a familiar, understandable way, which in this case means as a branded varietal wine

Story 2: I gave the faculty toast to our Phi Beta Kappa graduates at a luncheon last May and I was surprised to discover afterwards that the sparkling wine we drank came from New Mexico of all places. It was called Gruet and I was further surprised to find some of it on the neighborhood Metropolitan Market shelves.

Gruet et Fils is a prominent French Champagne house, founded in 1952. Champagne is a good business, but a difficult one, too, for an entrepreneur. The business is highly regulated and expansion opportunities are strictly limited. Vineyard yields and locations are tightly controlled. If you want to make more Champagne to take advantage of market conditions, well basically you can’t. But you can make more Champane-like product, Methode Champenoise sparking wine, if you invest in vineyards outside the Champagne region. It won’t be Champagne, of course, and won’t earn Champagne’s price premium, but people will buy it if it’s very good.

Members of the Gruet family were therefore vaguely searching for vineyard expansion opportunities when they were passing through the American Southwest in 1983. They ran into some fellow European winemakers who were trying to make a go of it in New Mexico and, inspired by their example, ended up planting vineyards at elevation 4300 feet near the town of Truth or Consequences, about 170 miles south of Albuquerque. The winery equipment was shipped over from France along with members of the Gruet family to make the wine and, in due course, a first vintage (1987) was released.

Today Gruet produces more than 80,000 cases of American sparkling and still wines in New Mexico, which must make them the state’s largest producer. Prices run from about $13.50 for the basic sparkler up to nearly $50 for limited release wines — prices that are significantly lower than for equivalent Champagnes. Moral of the story: Americans will buy French-style wines from unexpected places if they are good, which the Gruet wines are, and a good value.

Final story: Boisset, Vins et Spiriteux is a major French wine and spirits company. Founded in 1961 by Jean-Claude Boisset, it has evolved into a a top-five producer in France, exporting to more than 80 countries with investments in California (DeLoach Vineyards), Italy, Spain, Uruguay, South Africa and Canada. Their French brands include J. Moreau & Fils (Chablis), Bouchard Aine & Fils (Cote de Beaune) and Louis Bernard (Rhone Valley), all of which are sold in the United States.

But Boisset America‘s big push at the moment is a wine called French Rabbit. Like Redwood Creek, it is wine from Languedoc. Unlike Redwood Creek, however, it doesn’t pretend to be inspired by anyone’s tradition, either French or Californian. It is designed to appeal to modern consumers who want to make wine part of an active, informal, sustainable lifestyle. That’s why it is packaged as you see it here, in lightweight eco-friendly octogonal-shaped one liter Tetra-Prisma containers (and 250-ml single-serving untis, too).

(The wine on the left, Yellow Jersey (think Tour de France) is another Boisset America brand. It comes in a PET plastic bottle and will fit in your bicycle’s water bottle holder.)

Is the world ready for wine that looks like this? A lot of my friends cling to tradition, unwilling even to give up corks for screw caps. Will they accept wine in what appears at first glance to be an orange juice carton? Apparently so — Boisset America sells more than 100,000 cases of French Rabbit in the United States and Canada and is now introducing the innovative brand into what must be the most traditional possible market, France itself. (Watch for an upcoming post about how French Rabbit and its unorthodox packaging was born).

Moral of the story: French wines can succeed outside of France because of the creativity and entrepreneurship of French winemakers. Who knew?

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